Whenua Hou: Codfish Island and the few Kākāpō Left

February 5, 2021
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AFTER my month on Rakiura/Stewart Island, Ileft for Whenua Hou, also known as Codfish Island, to work on trackmaintenance. Even in normal times, to stay on the island youhave to go through quarantine, which I did in Invercargill. During the process, they checked for foreign grasses in mygear, so I had made sure to purchase new socks and wash down my pack and wetweather gear.


LINZ via NZ Topo Map, 2017

Beforedeparting for the island, I realised I did not know whether I was flying thereby aeroplane or helicopter. I was petrified because in the 1990s I had taken atourist helicopter ride at the Shotover (Queenstown) and I had felt like I wasgoing to fall out of the sky. To my relief, we took a four-seater plane fromInvercargill Airport. However, the weather was wet and windy and even theexperienced pilot was silently sweating when we took two attempts to land onthe beach.

Thetrack maintenance on Whenua Hou was hellish. We were set to work ripping upseventy metres of wire-meshed boardwalk with crowbars and staple-gunning downplaster tread in its place – all this done in the rain, of course! My back justabout gave out after doing it for five days.

Thekākāpō breeding season on Whenua Hou is a busy affair. It begins with the malekākāpō’s booming song, a mating call designed to attract the females. Somemales are successful at this, but for the less adept, artificial inseminationis also being used. This is essential because some breeding-age males, likeRichard Henry’s son Sirocco, were hand-reared and now prefer human company tothe company of other birds! Poor Sirocco may never mate with another kākāpō buthe has other pleasures – he is famous for making out with Stephen Fry’sco-presenter’s head on a British nature documentary!

Duringthe breeding season, rangers frequent the wooden walkways on the island forabout two months, travelling between nests and monitoring the birds. Once theyare nesting, volunteers camp outside the burrows and monitor the comings andgoings of the parent. There are cameras placed in every nest to monitor theincubation period.

Oncethe eggs hatch, each chick is like gold. They are weighed, hand-fed and all thegrowth processes are overseen. I met some of the kākāpō juveniles during theday as they were being weighed. Hand-rearing does occur, but as it can affecttheir breeding potential later, it is preferable that they are raised in thewild. The success of a breeding season depends on the growth of rimu berries onthe island, as these are used to feed the birds. Around Whenua Hou you see alot of berry collection points. Though much effort is made to feed the kākāpō,the rangers tend to lose a lot of weight while on the job!

Itis amazing to think that kākāpō once actually lived all through Aotearoa/NewZealand until only quite recently. How anyone could stand by and see a speciesalmost wiped out is unfathomable to me. During the 1890s, one man calledRichard Henry (the namesake of the aforementioned kākāpō) attempted to transfera number of the birds to Resolution Island, where he was working as caretaker. Unfortunately, ferrets and stoats arrived on the island in 1900and decimated the populations he had established.

Afterworking so hard, I did a lot of hiking around the island and took photographsof yellow-eyed penguins, Sealers Bay, and the view across to nearby StewartIsland.

Whenit came time to leave, we had to take the helicopter out because the winds weretoo strong for fixed-wing aircraft. I silently freaked out but let no one knowhow I felt. To my surprise it was a far calmer ride than the aeroplane. I lovedthe flight over Stewart Island, and we made a very smooth landing inInvercargill.

Whenua Hou wildlife – penguin and kākāpō

Sealers Bay above and below, with penguin above – the aptly-named Ruggedy Mountains of Rakiura/StewartIsland can be seen in the distance in both views.


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